Before the Decepticons: early projected images from the Victor Animatograph Company

In the days before Decepticons and Autobots, Viopticons, Stereopticons, and the other members of the Magic Lantern family thrilled audiences in darkened rooms. While perhaps difficult for us to imagine from our movie-savy perspective, for many years before the advent of cinema people went out to the “picture show” to look at slides.  Theatergoers were captivated by the magical effect of these projected images. Eventually, enterprising showmen added musicians and sound effects to enhance the show–even animating the images by various mechanical techniques. During the late 18th and 19th centuries, phantasmagoria shows left audiences shivering with terror for fear that ghosts and demons had been set upon them.

The Texas Collection recently uncovered two boxes of glass slides manufactured by the Victor Animatograph Co. of Davenport, Iowa. These slides were 2 x 2.25 inches and were shown on the Viopticon, the first truly portable stereopticon. The Vioptican projected images using a brilliant carbon arc lamp.  Sets of Viopticon slides were available for purchase or rent as illustrated lectures. Our two sets of slides were used by Baylor history professor Francis Gevrier Guittard in the early 1900s. One set contains hand-tinted photographs of Yellowstone National Park, and the other set depicts important events from the life of George Washington during the American Revolution. While these slides were not part of a spectacular Magic Lantern theater experience, they represent an early example of educational technology as manufacturers began to promote the use of projectors in the classroom.

The inventor of the Viopticon, Alexander Victor, lived a fascinating life. Born in Sweden in 1878, his first career was as a magician and showman working with the renowned Stephanio. Victor had obtained an early Lumiere Cinematograph and added projected pictures to Stephanio’s show, much to audience delight.  After Stephanio’s death, Victor continued touring with his own troupe, but a warehouse fire in Ohio destroyed his entire collection of magical props and his career as a performer ended.

Despite this setback, the astonishingly creative Victor began again, and went on to invent the first electric washing machine for the White Lily Company.   In keeping with his interest in projected images, and recognizing that there could be a larger market for motion pictures than as entertainment, Victor next invented what may be the first amateur 16mm movie camera and projector.  In 1915, realizing that the danger created from highly flammable nitrate film stock would limit market growth in schools, businesses, and churches, Victor began pushing the film industry to adopt new safety standards and move to cellulose acetate “safety film.”

You can see a slideshow of these Viopticon images and imagine yourself in an early 20th century classroom by visiting our flickr page. For the Yellowstone slides click here, and for George Washington, click here.

Trust but verify: looking at a fragment of Civil War history

At some point in our lives most of us pass through that phase where we believe “if you see it in print, it must be true.” In the world of Special Collections, this can also mean that when an object has a handwritten note identifying it, you accept the note as factual. Unfortunately, real life is rarely so reliable.

Take for example, a set of reprints we found of the Ulster County Gazette dated January 4, 1800 and reporting the death of George Washington. Accompanying several obvious reprints was a very nice copy on rag paper in a folder marked “Original.”  Was this in fact an incredibly valuable original? Had we discovered a long lost treasure hiding in the archives? Our hearts beat a little faster until we determined that, no, it was a reprint too. Someone creating that folder (in the days before internet access) had been mistaken.

But even with all the resources of scholarship at your fingertips, authentication remains a tricky business. Consider the framed bit of cloth pictured above and its two captions. The first, handwritten on the paper to which the cloth is attached, reads

Ft. Moultrie (S.C.)

Garrison Flag ““ size about 15 ft. by 18.

It flew while Heroic Sumter was bombarded April 12th – 13th 1861.

C.H.

The second note is on a separate sheet at the bottom and says:

Piece of bunting from the flag

that floated above Ft. Sumter

during its bombardment  April 12-13, 1861.

It was 15 ft. by 18 ft.

Sent to Hon. Geo. Clark in a letter.

R.E. Pare, Macon, GA

So where did the flag fly and whose flag was it? The original object indicates that this flag flew over Fort Moultrie–a position from which the Confederate Army fired on Fort Sumter.  The second caption says the flag came from Fort Sumter–which would mean it was a Federal flag. And, while it seems likely that this second note is an error made by a descendant or a later owner, if this is a Confederate artifact, what do the words “Heroic Sumter” mean?

If you have any thoughts you’d like to share with us on our latest puzzle, we hope you’ll leave us a comment below. By the way, there is a Texas connection to the Battle of Fort Sumter: a completely unauthorized surrender was arranged with the Union troops by Texan Louis T. Wigfall who rowed out to the fort in a skiff. Wigfall, a one-time U.S. Senator, went on to lead the Texas Brigade until his fondness for whiskey and hard cider made it necessary for him to resign his commission. He was replaced by John Bell Hood.

Questions for you from The Texas Collection

In the days of the fountain pen, before the invention of the ballpoint, blotting paper was an everyday essential and advertising blotters were as common as today’s business cards. Advertising blotters were small cards, usually with colorful pictures, printed with advertising on the front.  Nearly every company handed them out. The pictures might be related to the product being advertised, or they could be movie stars, pinup girls, calendars, or patriotic and historical images. To get a sense of how blotters fit into daily life, read “Tips from the Traveling Salesman” by Frank Farrington in which a frustrated man tears up a poor quality advertising blotter and gives the writer a lesson in best practices for blotter advertising [Grand Rapids Furniture Record , Vol. 36 (February, 1921), p.121].

The Texas Collection has in its archives, as part of the Frank Watt collection, a salesman’s sample book of advertising blotters. This book contains page after page of beautiful advertising artwork from what we think is the early 1900s.  Businesses could choose the blank blotters they wished to imprint with their advertising and place an order with the salesman.

We hope you’ll share with us what you know about advertising blotters. Can you help us date this sample book? Do you recognize any of the artists responsible for the images? Add your comments below!

–GPH


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